SCENE: A dog park in the Bronx. There are two benches. The first is near the entrance to the run—the second it toward the opposite end.
MARY JANE, early 70’s, sits on one side of the second bench in the dog run. Using a launcher, SHE plays fetch with her spaniel, LANTERN. CHRISTIE, late 50’s, is sitting on the far side of the bench and throwing a ball to one of his two terriers—the other dog sits near MARY JANE. A sunny day)
CHRISTIE: (Calling, to one of his dogs.) Come on Jasper, stop taking Lantern’s ball.
MARY JANE: What to do? I wait for this all year long–I’m not sure if anything will change by May or June.
CHRISTIE: I saw, on the Web, that the worst should be over by the end of April–not that it might not recur . . .
MARY JANE: I get the same ABT tickets in the parterre–with my friend.
CHRISTIE: (To Jasper.) You have your own ball! Leave Lantern’s alone! (CHRISTIE stands.) Come on Jasper, put the ball over here!
MARY JANE: That’s all right. Just leave him. He’ll put it down when he’s ready.
(Jasper finally puts down the ball.)
MARY JANE: I told you. He always puts down the ball if you leave him alone.
CHRISTIE: Natan said we should just nuke New Rochelle—then our problems would be solved.
MARY JANE: And cancel 2020.
CHRISTIE: That will get rid of corona virus.
MARY JANE: The National Guard is taking food and medical supplies to the elderly.
CHRISTIE: How far away is New Rochelle? I’ve never been there.
MARY JANE: Depends on where you’re going. New Rochelle is a big place. Six schools. Two closed. Twenty-five minutes, maybe. That’s where my vet is and where I get my car repaired. We used to go to New Rochelle for the best pizza.
MARY JANE: They closed Fordham. Columbia.
CHRISTIE: Saint Xavier. Courses go online Thursday.
MARY JANE: Was anyone at the school found to be infected?
MARY JANE: What does that mean for you?
CHRISTIE: I can’t tutor because you have to work with the student face to face. (Pause.) They’re going on spring break anyway—it doesn’t matter.
(Pause. We hear the entry gate open and close. A small black and white dog, like on the old RCA records comes up to CHRISTIE—and he lightly begins petting the dog.)
CHRISTIE: (Changing the subject.) At least the weather’s better. That would stop the virus. That’s what happens with the flu. Knock it out. One of the workmen in our building said: “You want some Coronas? I got some.”
(Silence. CHRISTIE stops petting the dog.)
MARY JANE: (Speaking quietly.) You know Natan?
CHRISTIE: (Not hearing.) What?
MARY JANE: You see that man over there?
CHRISTIE: (To one of the terriers.) Come on Jasper—you can let Lantern have his own ball.
MARY JANE: He lives in Natan’s building.
CHRISTIE: Why is he holding a white handkerchief in front of his face?
MARY JANE: Natan often knows things about people.
CHRISTIE: (Throwing a ball.) The New Rochelle line was only a joke, you know that, right? I never know if people take things the wrong way. (Looking over at the man.) Maybe that guy is sick.
MARY JANE: His son is in quarantine.
CHRISTIE: I was just petting his dog–lightly on top.
MARY JANE: Can you get it from animals?
CHRISTIE: I don’t know.
MARY JANE: He seems sick. (The man is blowing his nose.)
CHRISTIE: I don’t want to wait to find out.
(The dog jumps up on the bench.)
CHRISTIE: I think I’m going to go in the other run.
MARY JANE: I’ve never gotten along with him. He takes up too much of a bench.
CHRISTIE: I want to wash my hands.
MARY JANE: I’m going to the doctor in a few minutes.
CHRISTIE: Let’s get out of here.
MARY JANE: (Suddenly.) Lantern! We’re leaving!
(C) Copyright 2020 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
(MARY JANE, early 70s, sits on a bench in the dog run. Using a launcher, SHE plays fetch with her spaniel, LANTERN. CHRISTIE, male, late 50s, is standing and throwing a ball to one of his two terriers—the other sits near MARY JANE.)
MARY JANE: I don’t think it can be coronavirus because I don’t have a temperature.
CHRISTIE: Is that one of the symptoms?
MARY JANE: That’s one of the symptoms. I was checking every fifteen minutes, when I was home, and I don’t have a temperature.
CHRISTIE: Plus you’ve had this for a while–
MARY JANE: About three or four days. Four days. And I’ve never had a temperature. So I don’t think it can be coronavirus.
CHRISTIE: (Relieved.) Well, that’s good. (To one of the dogs.) Good catch, Jasper.
MARY JANE: You know Crosby, Stills, and Nash—from the sixties?
MARY JANE: I was going to see Nash.
CHRISTIE: You were?
MARY JANE: But I told my brother I couldn’t go—he didn’t have a problem, he completely understood. If I was on the aisle, that would be one thing, so I could get up, if I had to. But I didn’t want to be in the middle of a row in case I started to cough.
CHRISTIE: My wife thinks she has norovirus
MARY JANE: I wouldn’t want people to think I had coronavirus.
CHRISTIE: Where is S. A. R.?
MARY JANE: Over by the railroad tracks.
CHRISTIE: Yeshiva is closed, too.
MARY JANE: And the academy.
CHRISTIE: The man lives in New Rochelle. It’s affected over a thousand people. They can trace it.
MARY JANE: I don’t think this can be the flu because I don’t have chills.
CHRISTIE: Early in the morning I think I must be getting sick—under my left eye feels all puffy. But I am fine by the time I get up.
MARY JANE: I was reading about the common cold—and this should peak in the next two days.
CHRISTIE: There’s no one else here—not even the schoolkids.
MARY JANE: It’s like we’re the last two people on earth. (To her dog.) Lantern, find your ball!
CHRISTIE: We’ll meet up with another group of survivors from . . . Italy.
(Rabe’s story appeared in the 7/8 & 15 New Yorker.)
A week ago Thursday, my uncle Jim called. When I picked up the phone and said, “Hello,” he said, “Hello.” The voice was familiar and yet I didn’t recognize it. “Who is this?” I said.
“Jim,” he told me. “Uncle Jim.”
“What?” I was very surprised, because I thought Uncle Jim was dead. “Who is this?” I wanted to know. I really wanted to know.
“I just told you. Jim. I’m here with Hank. Is your mom home?”
“No,” I said. I thought Uncle Jim had been dead for years.
“Where is she?”
Now, the Hank he’d just referred to was probably his older brother, and my mom was their sister, Margie, and the thing of it was, the bewildering thing of it was that I thought they were all dead. “Is this some kind of joke?” I asked.
“We’re not laughing,” he said.
“Look,” I said, “I was in the middle of something here.”
In a week where Robert De Niro’s curse out of Donald Trump received a standing ovation at the 2018 Tony Awards, Russian actor Evgeny Mironov, who immerses himself in the title character of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov—at New York City Center from June 14-17–notes, in a Playbill interview with Katie Labovitz, that “Art is above politics.” The two actors, who were not reacting to one other’s comments, emphasize a cultural distinction between the aesthetics of the two countries and raise a tortuous, ugly subject for both—the degree to and ways in which censorship is employed. American theatre, where politics is a marketing hook (Trump as Julius Caesar at the Delacorte last summer, for example) does silence through marginalizing and ignoring even important work and artists, admonishing or condemning them for mistakes in liberal thinking—recall the careless lack of perspective in the title for The New York Times review of the Pearl’s 2016 A Taste of Honey; “She’s Having the Baby. How Quaint.” Or consider the roughly half of American voters who would not concur with Mr. De Niro or even want their children to have to listen to him on such a subject on a night which largely celebrates musicals. Maybe Russians are more accustomed to abrupt changes in the political climate than those in the West, which may help explain why De Niro has had trouble accepting a free election that happened over a year and a half ago. Or is he just emissary of the unofficial censorship from the left? Here’s a simple observation: Why do reviews of plays, books, art, concentrate so heavily on divining an author’s politics, real or imagined—and passing judgment on them, instead of discussing the work itself? Have we become a nation not of art aficionados, but of inspectors patrolling the slippery slope of political correctness? Within the last year the BAM production of the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s conflicted dramatic interpretation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he shamefully admires—but without him, without his standing in the artistic community, without his being native to another country, where would Objectivism, akin to Conservatism, have a chance to be contemplated on stage in this country? Chekhov, of course, talks about the need to shift cultural perspectives through his character Konstantin, in The Seagull. Perhaps, he is right to impute that a cultural collision is necessary to shake up prevailing artistic norms.
Ivanov (Mironov), the title character in the new Theatre of Nations production, brought to the U.S. as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, would never be deemed politically correct, much less producible, if written by an American playwright, although the current settings and costumes are contemporary. This may upset the paradigm of understanding the playwright’s work in terms of needing to see him as part of Old Russia: fading, if grandiose; but Ivanov himself, plagued by financial crises and alcohol abuse, a dying wife he doesn’t love (Chulpan Khamatova), and a young woman he is attracted to (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) would also not win him much sympathy with the #MeToo Movement or raise much interest in the shrinking men’s market (a work with similar themes by Derek Ahonen of the Amoralists, The Qualification of Douglas Evans, did not make much impact in 2014). Such a character is not unknown in the American vernacular, however; he’s just more akin to others who have had their day, like those in the writings of John Updike and John Cheever. All of the actors—part of Ivanov’s family and social circle–need mention, though, because of their stamina throughout the evening (three hours and ten minutes, performed in Russian with English surtitles) and the complexity of their performances: Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Igor Gordin, Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitry Serdyuk, Alexander Novin, Marianna Shults, Olga Lapshina, Aleksey Kalinin, Ilya Orshanskiy, Irina Gordina, and Andrey Andreev.
Oleg Golovko’s settings for the play also inadvertently recall the American 1970’s—his decor is at first heavy, unmatched patterns and drywall, perhaps brutalist, reminiscent of paneling and prefab, pre-Martha Stewart. Elsewhere he recreates a dacha lit by candlelight (and sparklers), a utilitarian doctor’s office devoid of personality, except overseen by a large kitschy painting of a German Shepherd, and the back room of a wedding hall—the amplified lighting, using fluorescents, is by Denis Solntsev. Chekhov shows that Ivanov is despondent (“When I’m depressed, I fall out of love with you”), but that seems like a bad excuse for his transgressions. Audiences are not asked to ascertain a minimal production, though; a current, cost-effective mode. The cast has also apparently been given time to move beyond telegraphing and shortcuts, to think past the next line or plot point. They work naturalistically to achieve independent characters, arriving at fullness: the condition of entropy just before chaos. Whether the credit should be given to the actors or to the director, Timofey Kulyabin, or all, the emphasis rests on accumulations of behaviors, quite detailed. Examples include the twirling of a plate on a tabletop or clapping the hands of a partner in a birthday dance, or doing chin-ups, or kissing hands—the depth of specific touches may be missed by the audience and some might never be known. Whether they have been improvised or consciously blocked, Stanislavski is noting them.
Evgeny Mironov’s appraisal of art as above politics registers with a purity to American ears who have come to believe that art is only politics. Internationally, there is much to be learned regarding fine art from other cultures, beyond the American status quo. Domestically, though, art is not politically balanced and has been appropriated propagandistically. There is work to see, but the American theatremaker has largely been abandoned by the right—to the point where his or her art can be demonized, if it can even be visualized at all. During the time of year where lists are compiled about winning dramatic works, accolades are one-sided and incomplete. Theatre does not have a Regnery, the publisher of Conservative books, to provide any kind of balance. To a liberal, that may come as a relief on different levels, but it does not show the world the true range of possibilities for finding our own Chekhov, no matter his or her political affiliation. One way Americans can start to confront this matter, as the #MeToo Movement raises its voice, is to allow someone, like Jon Voight, who, incidentally, played Trigorin in The Seagull on Broadway, to be part of the Tony ceremonies next year. Part of becoming nonpartisan regarding the arts–and coming to a reckoning with the past–is to acknowledge how partisan they actually are.
Update, 6/18: In an apparent answer to Robert De Niro’s Tony performance, Chris Perez, in The New York Postreported, on June 18, that a Trump supporter tried to disrupt the curtain call of the musical Bronx Tale, directed by Mr. De Niro, on June 16, by standing to display a Trump 2020 campaign flag.
In the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, panache seems to overtake sincerity in this gilded, but nonetheless, enjoyable production. Title-role: Emma Hatton, no stranger to the West End (her credits include Elphaba in Wicked) or to the world of jazz and blues, seems to rely heavily on the latter in the delivery of her performance.
A vocally taxing role, Evita swoops from dusky, barely audible low notes all the way up to belted passagio, and then some. To quote Patti LuPone, originator of the role of Evita on Broadway, “There’s a couple of notes that aren’t as strong as your top notes or your bottom notes and that’s exactly where the score sits.” Where LuPone punched through the Es, Fs, and Gs, that characterize the vocal line (at the cost of her vocals, to be fair), Hatton backs down and floats them, in a breathy, bluesy manner. This approach adds a layer of sensitivity to Evita, by the addition of more dynamic contrast, but at what cost? Some of the strength, drive, and fearlessness of Eva Perón seem to be lost.
Playing opposite Hatton, making his West End debut in the role of Che, is Gian MarcoSchiaretti. Extremely handsome, he moves about the stage with ease and confidence. Classic Che beard tightly clipped, army reliefs tightly fitted, and vibrato tightly coiled, this “boyband Che” brings charisma to the role, and, when he moves to his higher register and gives up trying to speak-sing, reveals an expressive and powerful voice. Unfortunately, the honesty and gravity of Che, as narrator, are glossed over by all the glitz.
Whereas the roles of Evita and Che seem to be lacking something, in terms of integrity, so too does the music. As is the norm nowadays, with theatres trying to cut costs, the orchestra that Webber’s iconic songs were written for consists of three keyboards–playing the parts of various instruments, such as strings and harps–a couple of trumpets, and a guitar.
All in all, a fun production but fluffy–ephemeral and insubstantial.
Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia,published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1998. He is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. His short story, Man of the West, was nominated for a Western Writers of America Spur award.He has contributed to the following collections: Exploring American History (Marshall Cavendish, 2008); Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario (Chronicles Books, 2006); Immigration and the American Identity (Chronicles Books, 2008);and Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Johns Hopkins University). He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Wayne Allensworth saddles up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about writing the epic, the poetic, and the tragic in a two-part interview—Part 2 will be published 4/25. Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD at the end of this post.
Wayne, tell us about your new book—would it be fair to call it a “Western”?
The themes and setting make Field of Blood what some might call a “modern Western.” I think of the book as taking place in an imagined present— a small Texas town is transformed as the American Southwest gradually melds with Mexico. America is merging with Latin America, with all the dislocations, conflicts, and moral dilemmas that arise out of a clash of cultures. We aren’t quite there yet, but are headed in that direction at a rapid pace. If the elite of both countries had their way, that’s where we would be now. That was my starting point.
I tried to imagine what that would look like. It’s very much a frontier situation. The rule of law is breaking down where the old America is passing away, the globalized world bringing with it chaos and disorientation. The corruption and frenzied violence of today’s Mexico are crossing the border. That’s what’s coming. You might say that the drug cartels and their accomplices are a criminal counterpart to trans-national corporations, both out to take advantage of the erosion of borders and national institutions. They share an interest in dissolving boundaries, doing away with the old institutions, and exploiting the situation for profit, no matter what the cost to ordinary people.
My characters are struggling with the new reality and their own sense of identity, as well as a sense of loss. I tried to get at the surrealism of globalization, and the bizarre situations it creates. America is being forcibly merged with Latin America, but it doesn’t stop there, not for us or them. It’s really an anti-human and anti-humane world, one without reference points, that benefits the most ruthless among us the most.
In this setting, I set up a situation that forces people to take sides in a way that is especially pronounced on a frontier. It’s the kind of dilemma that leads to an inevitable showdown. That’s very much like a traditional Western, but in a modern, or post-modern, setting.
How did you become interested in Westerns–and what is it about them that made you want to write them?
My grandfather told me stories about the Old West when I was a boy. I heard stories about Quanah Parker, the range wars, about his meeting Frank James, and seeing Geronimo. Westerns are uniquely American, they are elemental, dealing with fundamental issues—survival, identity, loyalty—and they are about us, about our people and how we came to be what and who we are.
I read Westerns my grandfather would pass along to me after he had read them, books by writers like Louis L’Amour, Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, and Alan LeMay. Later on in life, I read Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and Cormac McCarthy. McMurtry wrote his great epic Western, Lonesome Dove, in an urbanized, technological era when Westerns had fallen out of fashion. I think he revived the Western. McCarthy wrote his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, as a metaphysical Western, one that drew on authors like Melville and Conrad, but the violence and stylistics of the novel were from a later period. McCarthy took the Western to places it hadn’t been before. You might call some of these books “modern Westerns,” books like McMurtry’s Horseman Pass By, McCarthy’s border trilogy, and his No Country for Old Men. Modern Westerns, especially, have an elegiac quality about them; they are stories chronicling the passing of an era, the passing of the old America, its values and way of life. But that sense of something dying out, that something we’ll miss, the good and the bad, is part of a lot of Westerns.
Westerns were once a very important genre in America cinema, and movie Westerns and Western books drew on each other. It was a two-way street, the books, dating back to the dime novels of the 19th century, to the authors I’ve mentioned. They provided much of the raw material for movie Westerns, and the films provided a lot of the imagery used in subsequent Western stories. The great movie Westerns, films like Stagecoach, Red River, Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, gave the genre its stock of characters and themes, and the imagery of a mythical West. Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks set the standard for movie Westerns and made them art. Movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper became the face of American Westerns. John Wayne, in particular, became a symbol of the American Western. Clint Eastwood took up Wayne’s mantle to a certain degree. He was in Westerns on TV and in the movies, and, together with director Don Siegel, made modern Westerns like Coogan’s Bluffand, some would say, Dirty Harry, which I’ve heard called an “urban Western.”
I think films like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and his best movie, The Wild Bunch, drew on the somber tone and texture of elegiac Westerns. The Wild Bunch took Western films into some of the places Cormac McCarthy would take the literary Western. Peckinpah made modern Westerns like Junior Bonner and The Getaway, while films based on McMurtry’s books, Hud and The Last Picture Show,contrasted the Old West with the new one, the ideal of the West as we like to think of it, and the realities of modern life. That kind of movie is still with us—just look at the success of Hell or High Water.
Early morning: They deliver my father’s corpse in the trunk of a ’49 Mercury coupe, dew still heavy on the taillights. His body is wrapped up tight in see-through plastic, head to toe. Flesh-colored rubber bands bind it at the neck, waist, and ankles — mummy style. He’s become very small in the course of things — maybe eight inches tall. In fact, I’m holding him now, in the palm of my hand. I ask them for permission to unwrap his tiny head, just to make sure he’s truly dead. They allow me to do this. They all stand aside, hands clasped behind their tailored backs, heads bowed in a kind of ashamed mourning, but not something you would question them on. It’s smart to keep on their good side. Besides, they seem quite polite and stoic now.
(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 9/16.)
Once upon a time, a young actor met an older playwright. That story might have many possible outcomes, but on this particular occasion, its results were extraordinary. The young actor's name was James Houghton, and he was cast in a play by Romulus Linney, at a grungy off-off-Broadway theater. Like many before him, he found Linney's playwriting of great interest, and wondered why this distinguished writer, with productions on Broadway and in other notable venues to his credit, had so little public recognition that he was still working in a do-it-yourself showcase mode, focusing his own lights and folding his own programs.
But unlike those who had previously pondered that cultural question, Jim Houghton decided to do something about it. He scraped up some money — his actress wife had just done a dishwashing-detergent commercial, which helped — and put on, not a single production, but a season of plays by Romulus Linney, in, improbably, a Japanese calligraphy center on Bond Street. Some critics came, who knew the value of Linney's plays from previous encounters; I was one. A small public came. A reputation was launched. And suddenly there was a company, named Signature Theatre, which had a newly established tradition: to celebrate a different American playwright each year, by presenting a full season of his or her works, old and new. Traditions can be born very quickly, especially if everyone thinks they're a great idea.
When Shelagh Delaney was 18, in 1958, she wrote A Taste Honey, now running at the Pearl Theatre, extended until October 30. The play, an act of adolescent rebellion, integrates disparate issues and themes, from mothers to race; men to sex and motherhood to gays and abortion; from Shakespeare (“he said everything, didn’t he?) to theatre and movies (“mauling and muttering, can’t hear what they’re saying half the time. . . . ”). She had failed her 11-plus exams four times and spent her Saturdays at the movies, where she may have seen films like the ones mentioned or referred to in her play: I was a Teenage Werewolf, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and Desire Under the Elms. When the legendary director Joan Littlewood, who championed English working-class plays and Brechtian technique, read this “slice of life” (in a positive review, Harold Clurman used that descriptor), she said, “Delaney knows what she is angry about”—which was probably everything. But she is also comparing the author to John Osborne and the angry young men of British theatre. Graham Green weighed in on this count, too, saying that A Taste of Honey has “all the freshness of Mr. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and a greater maturity.”
“A northern [English] sense of humor, lack of sentimentality, and robust approach” is how actress Lesley Sharp, who starred in the play in 2014, extemporizes on A Taste of Honey. Professor Nadine Holdsworth, from the University of Warwick, calls the language: “quick, sharp, witty banter.” When looking at footage or photos of Delaney, during this period, she seems knowing and well-mannered but slightly mischievous, too, impatient, or “restless,” as she would probably describe herself. She’s a large-eyed, soft-voiced perfect storm for a director like Austin Pendleton, who leads the current New York production of A Taste of Honey, because, on the page, she’s all sass and spunk and her lines move so fast. She forces Pendleton to keep up with her in his staging, the opinionated eighteen-year-old whose memory is like the NSA, and the actor’s director, with a penchant for British theatre. They both win.
Delaney did not often allow her first play to be produced (she died in 2011) and her daughter had never seen a staged version until she was an adult. This may have helped the unsentimental drama become sentimentalized over the years, after having been a play in the UK and the U.S., a movie, and fodder for a musical standard: Tony Richardson directed the New York production, as well as the classic, Bafta-winning film (for the movie, its screenplay, and the actresses), and he co-wrote the hit song, from which he never recouped royalties (he did not share credit; Bobby Scot and Ric Marlow did). Many artists have recorded A Taste of Honey, including The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Herb Alpert (who uses a quick tempo similar to the one heard at the Pearl, where the tune is played onstage by a Beat Trilby-wearing jazz trio who remain on stage (they are guitarist Phil Faconti, trumpeter Max Boiko, with mute, and bassist Walter Stinson. The lyrics to the song probably do not allude to Jo’s point of view, in ways that other popular songs, based on British dramatic material, did during the sixties and seventies, such as “Somewhere My Love” (Dr. Zhivago), “It Was a Good Time” (Ryan’s Daughter), or Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Too Beautiful to Last” (Nicholas and Alexandra). The repeated line in the song, “I will return,” comes from and refers to the sailor who leaves Jo, the eighteen-year-old girl, and the young man on the boat is an enduring image from the film. The misty longing is momentary, though, and there is no serious consideration of his coming back—or for Jo to run after him.
The Brechtian impulse was lost as the play transitioned to New York and the screen, too. Richardson felt that Littlewood’s “policy of mixing working-class drama with pub vitality and vaudeville songs” did not integrate well in A Taste of Honey—he thought they made the play seem “coarse and forcedly jolly.” He also believed that film could only be a realistic medium. The black-and-white film that emerged, despite its lower-class milieu, is an example of Free Style Cinema, and is expertly photographed by its founder, Walter Lassally, with “a minimum of equipment, real locations, and a natural, unmade-up look.” Casting became immediately critical. Rita Tushingham won the part of Jo, playing against the formidable Dora Bryan, and she was the right age; Joan Plowright, who starred in the role on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for it, was a world-renowned actress—but was thirty-one years old. No need to feel bad for Plowright, though. Interestingly, Austin Pendleton, would write a comedy about her, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Leigh, set while A Taste of Honey was entering popular culture. The play is Orson’s Shadow (2003). Welcome to the 1960s.
Delaney had written about what would matter to Americans during that decade, even though there wasn’t much chance to salvage Jo’s life in Manchester (Harry Feiner’s scenic design, at the Pearl, shows the roofs of the tenements in the city, as well as the dirty interior the two women inhabit). Some might compare A Taste of Honey to another Broadway show, which premiered in 1959, also set along the fringes of show business, with a domineering mother and her new boyfriend, as well as a daughter who runs off with a young man. A Taste of Honey, however, is no Gypsy, even though it prefigures the Kander and Ebb musical (such as Cabaret), because Jo will never be able to beat the English social system. In fact, Delaney barely could get out herself and remained a Marxist. Not that one producer didn’t try to fix the play’s structure, which actually is a problem with the work. According to Tony Richardson, in his autobiography The Long-Distance Runner, Darryl Zanuck “was interested in me directing it . . . on one condition: ‘a happy ending’. It has a happy ending—Jo is happy waiting for her baby to be born.” Zanuck: “That’s the point—the baby’s gotta die, and Mother and girl go off to a better life.” Richardson said no, thank you.
Jo is encased in her class, and her happy ending would be a dubious one in The United States. She does realize that there might be more elsewhere, but she makes fun of the book about her namesake when she says that her guide on having a baby sounds like Little Women. Delaney also may be making a reference to A Member of the Wedding when she talks about going on her mother’s honeymoon: “Can’t I come with you?” Delaney regains her senses against the pipe dream of becoming an artist, like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers. She doesn’t allow the flower bulbs she has kept to blossom, and she won’t let Jo go to school to become an artist. The audience sees the similarities between the mother, a “semi-whore” and daughter, and both are cynical (a quality of those who live in Salford, according to Delaney) and fatalistic: “Don’t think. It doesn’t do you any good.”
At the Pearl, Rachel Botchan, as Helen, is ready to dance, and Delaney provides her with asides, direct addresses to the audience, and songs. When she retakes her rooms at the end of the play, however, she has become a destroyer and, we see how her daughter deserves to hate her. Botchan deploys dainty savagery–and, even for those who know the play, this can seem unexpected. Impressive also is Rebekah Brockman, who gives us Jo’s poignant side, which would be expected. However, despite the weight of the milieu, she allows Delaney’s wicked humor to come through in a way that lets theatregoers laugh out loud. Brockman plays a scene with her gay roommate, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese, who does not rely on stereotypes), which centers on the idea that Jo’s father may have been unintelligent. This is funny, suddenly, and it also shows how Delaney looks at issues from many angles, typically working from many tentative points of view. Bradford Cover plays Helen’s younger lover, a small-time Romeo ready to fly at a moment’s notice, a thin man starting a pot belly. Jimmy, the sailor, is played by Ade Otukoya, who, at one point, is placed downstage center and seated, the action spinning around him. He allows us to see what young love is—he may not be faithful, or truthful, but no one can say that Jo should not have become involved with him.
Alan Brien, writing in The Spectator, in the ‘50s, saw in A Taste of Honey “an adolescent contempt for logic or form or practicability upon a stage.” What he didn’t see was the challenge of putting a young woman’s gritty aesthetic on the stage, one that can make a very good contemporary play like Bachelorette, by Leslye Headland, recently seen at Walkerspace, in a good production, seem much more degenerate than A Taste of Honey (which is actually something Headland might agree with). Of course, the plays present two different worlds—postwar Britain and present-day, corporatized America, but many of the issues are the same, if not universal, and the feminism that Jo needed, seems to have been let down or erroneously redirected, if it is judged by Headland’s work. The screwed up, narcissistic young wedding-party crashers in Bachelorette are takers; Jo is a giver: “Blessings light upon you. If I had half a crown a day, I’d gladly give it to you.” This does not mean that Jo is naïve, which is how the women in Bachelorette might size her up. Actually, she is clear about her own mind. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in two weeks, in 1958, because she was angered by the insidious lives of those portrayed in drawing room comedies, specifically one by Terence Rattigan. She felt she could do better. May contemporary theatre find a Shelagh Delaney to do better for us and may her kind of anger continue to force the issue.
(Atwood’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/24.)
Whenever people ask me that inevitable question, “Who’s your favourite author?” I always say “Shakespeare”. There are some good reasons for that. First, so much of what we know about plots, characters, the stage, fairies and inventive swearwords comes from Shakespeare. Second, if you name a living author the other living authors will be mad at you because it isn’t them, but Shakespeare is conveniently dead.
Third, Shakespeare refuses to be boxed in. Not only do we know very little about what he really thought, felt and believed, but the plays themselves are elusive. Just when you think you’ve got a meaning nailed down, your interpretation melts like jelly and you’re left scratching your head. Maybe he’s deep, very deep. Or maybe he didn’t have a continuity editor. And Shakespeare will never turn up on a talkshow and be asked to explain himself, the lucky devil.
Shakespeare is infinitely interpretable. We’ve had a fascist Richard III, we’ve had a Canadian First Nations Macbeth, we’ve had aTempest with a female Prospero called Prospera, starring Helen Mirren. In the 18th century they had a Tempestopera, which used only a third of Shakespeare’s original text. Caliban had a sister called Sycorax, Miranda had a sister called Dorinda, and there was an extra young man so Dorinda would have someone to marry.